The “strong female character” – that dour lady kick-ass of pasty writer-nerds’ dreams – may have finally met her maker at the hands of Villanelle, the adorably bonkers assassin of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s addictive BBC America series Killing Eve. As played by 25-year-old English actress Jodie Comer, Villanelle is a fresh, new face on the fictional psychopath scene – a cheeky, blithely amoral girl’s girl with a penchant for nice clothes, a deep love of her craft (i.e. brutally murdering people against a variety of European backdrops in highly creative ways) and a doomed longing for a friend who really gets her.
“Originally, I had this interpretation in my head of what a female assassin looked like on screen and how they acted,” Comer says, calling from England (and in dulcet English tones that were the polar opposite of her character’s Slavic growl). “And Phoebe went totally against that stereotype.”
Waller-Bridge, the creator and star of the peerless women-behaving-badly cringe-com Fleabag, who created the show based on the Codename Villanelle novels by Luke Jennings. While writing, she pictured the character as “an impish, hilarious, predatory, fearless, childish, terrifying, upbeat, murderous rascal.” Clearly, it was a tall order, and at first Waller-Bridge was nervous that she might not find all of those qualities in one actress. “But then Jodie Comer walked in,” she says via email, “and any image I had of Villanelle before simply vanished. She didn’t so much run with the character as shoot off into space with her.”
In some ways, Comer seems to have appeared out of nowhere, but she has been working steadily since starring in the BBC show Thirteen, about a woman trying to return to a normal life after having been held captive in a cellar for half her life. She also played the young Queen Elizabeth I on Starz’s The White Princess and stars in the upcoming Morrissey biopic, Steven. In part because of her schedule – and in part because she’s always been a homebody – Comer still lives with her parents in Liverpool. “This is the first show that I’ve been a part of that has kind of taken off in such a huge way,” she says. “I’ve never worked in U.S., actually. I’ve only ever worked in the UK, so hopefully maybe this will allow me to do that.”
The dazzling array of facets Comer brings to the role are disorienting and disarming – she’s cute one minute, weird and funny the next, then flips to completely and utterly terrifying on a dime. You’d think her face had its own dramatic climate. “I think that she tries her best to be normal,” Comer says of her character. “She has had a bad early life and it has been kind of grim and really dark but it doesn’t show through her. She doesn’t feel sorry for herself. She has this life now that she’s just totally in love with. She’s in love with herself. She loves the work she does.” She thrives on her killing assignments because they allow her, perversely, to connect with the people that she kills – if only for a moment.
“I thought of her as an actress sometimes,” Comer says. “Like she would take the time to think about what language or action is it that is going to be most convincing and deceiving, and what am I going to wear, what is my disguise, do I need this … I think it’s like a passion. She expresses herself completely through the way she dresses. and I don’t feel like she has a particular style. Whatever job she has to do she will go with that kind of vibe.” (Like, for example, if she’s toying with a therapist, she’ll opt for the pink Molly Goddard organza dress that sent the Internet in to a frenzy.)
“She brought a warmth and an adorable quality to Villanelle that was a thrill to watch,” Waller-Bridge says. “But I lost my heart to her swagger. She slowly revealed Villanelle’s true physicality as the show progressed. In the pink dress she’s adorably girly, in [a] suit she’s elegant and upright, then as we get to Russia, the swagger appears – and I love it!”
Killing Eve is the story of the mutual curiosity-turned-fascination that develops between Comer’s hired assassin and Sandra Oh’s bored MI5 agent, a former criminal psychology major. Long before they meet in person, they recognize each other, and the fascination develops into a destructive fixation as the season evolves. In a medium where it’s still rare to see two women speak to each other at all, unless it’s about a guy, the most salient quality of this relationship is its complexity and its mutuality.
“The relationship is both animal and intellectual,” Waller-Bridge says. “It’s more complex than either of them are able to articulate. They are each other’s shadow.” She describes the chemistry between them as “simultaneously warped and innocent. They reveled in the complexity and it pays off. I feel so damn lucky to have worked with them.”
What surprised Waller-Bridge about Comer’s performance were “her willingness to be spontaneous, to be silly and playful. We as an audience are so desperate to locate Villanelle’s vulnerability. Jodie knew that and toyed with it all the way through. The lighter she played her, the scarier she got. She’d give us the big puppy dog eyes just before twisting the knife and in an instant our cries would flip from ‘Awww’ to ‘AAAHHH!’
“She’s as fearless and creative an actress as Villanelle is a killer,” Waller-Bridge adds. “I really believe she can do anything.”